Summary | In-depth Beliefs
Hinduism is the predominant religion in the Indian subcontinent. It is often referred to as Sanātana Dharma, a Sanskrit phrase meaning "the eternal law", by its followers. Generic "types" of Hinduism that attempt to accommodate a variety of complex views vary from folk and Vedic Hinduism to bhakti tradition, as in Vaishnavism; Hinduism also includes yogic traditions and wide span of "daily morality", based on the notion of karma and societal norms like hindu marriage customs.
Among its origin is the historical Vedic religion of Iron Age India, and as such Hinduism is frequently said to be the "oldest religious tradition" or "oldest living major tradition." It is formed from diverse traditions and types and does not have a single founder. Hinduism is the world's third largest religion following Christianity and Islam, with approximately a billion followers, of which about 905 million live in India. Other countries with vast Hindu populations can be found all across southern Asia.
Hinduism's large body of scriptures is divided into Śruti ("revealed") and Smriti ("remembered"). These scriptures discuss theology, philosophy and mythology, and also provide information on the practice of dharma (religious living). Among these texts, the Vedas and the Upanishads are considered the first in authority, importance and antiquity.
Hinduism refers to the religious mainstream that evolved organically and spread over a vast territory that is marked by significant ethnic and cultural diversity. This mainstream evolved both by innovation from within, and by the taking in of external traditions or cults into the Hindu fold. This has resulted in an enormous variety of religious traditions, ranging from innumerable small, unsophisticated cults to major religious movements with millions of followers spread over the entire subcontinent. The identification of Hinduism as an independent religion apart from Buddhism and Jainism consequently hinges on the affirmation of its followers that it is such.
Prominent themes of Hindu beliefs include (but are not confined to), Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuous pattern of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and followin reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).
Concept of God
In Hinduism, the concept of God is very complex and depends on particular traditions. The majority of traditions of Vaishnavism believe he is Vishnu, God, and the text of Vaishnava scriptures notices this being to be Krishna, sometimes referred as svayam bhagavan. The term isvara - from the root is, to contain extraordinary power that is seen differently within diverse systems of beliefs that span monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism. Sometimes it is referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god yet accepting the existence of others), but this term is an overgeneralization.
Most Hindus believe that one's spirit or soul — the true "self" of each person, called the ātman — is eternal. According to most monistic and pantheistic theologies of Hinduism (such as Advaita Vedanta school), this Atman ultimately is indistinct from Brahman, the supreme spirit. Terefore, these schools are called non-dualist. Their goal of life, is to realize that one's ātman is identical to Brahman. The Upanishads state that whoever becomes fully aware of the ātman as the innermost core of one's own self realizes their identity with Brahman and then reaches moksha (liberation or freedom).
Dualistic schools believe Brahman to be a Supreme Being who possesses personality, and they worship him or her thus, as Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti, depending on their sect. The ātman is souly dependent on God, while moksha depends on love towards God and on His grace. When God is viewed as the supreme personal being (rather than as an infinite principle), God is called Ishvara ( meaning "The Lord"), Bhagavan (meaning "The Auspicious One") or Parameshwara (meaning "The Supreme Lord"). However interpretations of Ishvara vary, ranging from non-belief in Ishvara by the followers of Mimamsakas, to identifying Brahman and Ishvara as one, as in Advaita. Also, there are schools like the Samkhya which have atheistic leanings.
Devas and Avatars
The Hindu scriptures refer to celestial entities as Devas, or "the shining ones", which may be translated into English as "gods" or "heavenly beings". Devas are an key part of Hindu culture and are often depicted in art, architecture and through icons, and mythological stories about them are frequently related in the scriptures, particularly in Indian poetry and the Puranas. They are, however, often distinguished from Ishvara, a personal god, with many Hindus worshiping Ishvara in a particular form as their iṣṭa devatā, or chosen ideal. The choice is a matter of individual preference and regional traditions.
Hindu epics and the Puranas relate several episodes of the God's decent to Earth in corporeal form in order to restore dharma in society and guide humans to moksha. Such an incarnation is known as an avatar. The most prominent avatars are ones of Vishnu and include Rama (protagonist in Ramayana) and Krishna (a central figure in the epic Mahabharata).
Karma and Samsara
Karma literally translates as action, work, or deed, and is often described as the "moral law of cause and effect". According to the Upanishads individuasl, known as jiva-atmas, develop sanskaras (impressions) from actions, whether physical or mental. The linga sharira, a body much more subtle than the physical one, but not as subtle as the soul, retains impressions, carrying them over into the next life, establishing a unique course for the individual. Thus, the concept of a universal, neutral, and never-failing karma intrinsically relates to reincarnation as well as to one's personality, characteristics, and family. Karma binds together notions of free will and destiny.
The cycle of action, reaction, birth, death and rebirth is a continuum known as samsara. The notion of reincarnation and karma is a strong thesis in Hindu thought. The Bhagavad Gita states that:
Samsara provides ephemeral pleasures, which lead people to desire rebirth so as to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body. However, escaping the world of samsara through moksha is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace. It is thought that after several reincarnations, an atman eventually seeks unity with the cosmic spirit (Brahman/Paramatman).
The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is understood in several different ways: as the realization of one's union with God; as the realization of one's eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; as the attainment of perfect mental peace; and as detachment from worldly desires. Such a realization liberates one from samsara and ends the cycle of rebirth.
The exact interperatation of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman will no longer identify itself with an individual but as identical with Brahman in every respect. Followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools identify themselves as part of Brahman, and after attaining moksha will expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven), in the presence of their chosen form of Ishvara. It is said in the way that followers of dvaita wish to "taste sugar", while the followers of Advaita wish to "become sugar".
Hindu practices in general involve seeking awareness of God and also seeking blessings from Devas. Therefore, Hinduism has developed many practices meant to help one think of divinity in everyday life. Hindus may engage in pūjā (worship or veneration), either at home or in a temple. At home, Hindus often create a shrine containing icons dedicated to their chosen form(s) of God. Temples are generally dedicated to a primary deity, along with associated subordinate deities, though some will commemorate multiple deities. Visiting temples is not obligatory, and many will only visit temples during religious festivals. Hindus perform their worship through icons known as murtis. The works as a tangible link between the worshiper and God. The image is often times considered as a manifestation of God, since God is immanent. The Padma Purana states that a mūrti is not to be thought of as mere stone or wood, but as a manifest form of the Divinity. Few Hindu sects, such as the Ārya Samāj, do not believe in worshiping God through icons.
Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography on ordrer to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain meaning from the scriptures, mythology, and cultural traditions. The syllable Om (which represents the Parabrahman) and the Swastika sign (symbolizing auspiciousness) have both grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings, such as tilaka, will identify a follower of the faith. Hinduism associates many symbols, which include the lotus, chakra and veena, with particular deities.
Mantras are invocations, praise and prayers that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style will help a devotee focus their mind on holy thoughts or express devotion to God/the deities. Many devotees will perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river while chanting the Gayatri Mantra or Mahamrityunjaya mantras. The epic Mahabharata extols Japa (ritualistic chanting) as one's greatest duty in the Kali Yuga (what Hindus believe to be the current age). Many have adopted Japa as their primary spiritual practice.
The vast majority of Hindus engage in rituals on a daily basis, Most Hindus observe religious rituals at their home, but observation of rituals greatly vary among regions, villages, and individuals. Devout Hindus perform daily chores such as worshiping at dawn after their bathing (usually at a family shrine, and typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images of deities), recitation of religious scripts, singing hymns of devotion, meditation, chanting mantras, reciting scriptures and so forth. A notable feature in religious ritual is the division of purity and pollution. Religious acts assume some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralised prior to or during ritual procedures. Purification, usually with water, is a typical feature of most religious action. Other characteristics include a belief in the performance of sacrifice and concept of merit, gained through acts of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce their sufferings in the next world. Vedic rites of fire-oblation are today only occasional practices, although they are highly revered in theory. However, In Hindu wedding and burial ceremonies, the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras are still normal. The rituals, upacharas, will change with time. For instance, in the past few hundred years some Hindu rituals, such as sacred dance and music offerings in the standard Sodasa Upacharas set prescribed by the Agama Shastra, were replaced by offerings of rice and sweets.
Occasions like birth, marriage, and death involve often times elaborate sets of religious customs. lThese rituals include Annaprashan (a baby's first intake of solid food), Upanayanam ("sacred thread ceremony" undergone by upper-caste children at their initiation into formal education) and Shraadh (ritual of treating people to feasts in the name of the deceased). For most of India, the betrothal of the couple and the exact date and time of the wedding are decided by the parents in consultation with astrologers. Concerning death, cremation is considered obligatory for all except sanyasis, hijra, and children under five. Cremation is generally performed by wrapping the corpse in cloth and burning it on a pyre.
Pilgrimage and Festivals
Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hinduism, though many adherents will undertake them. Hindus recognize several Indian cities to be holy, including Allahabad, Haridwar, Varanasi, and Vrindavan. Notable temple cities include Puri, host of a major Vaishnava Jagannath temple and Rath Yatra celebration; Tirumala - Tirupati, home of the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple; and Katra, home of the Vaishno Devi temple. The four holy sites Puri, Rameswaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath (or alternatively the Himalayan towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri) together compose the Char Dham (four abodes) pilgrimage circuit. The Kumbh Mela (the "pitcher festival") is one of the holiest of all Hindu pilgrimages and is held every four years; the location is rotated among Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain. Another important set of pilgrimages are the Shakti Peethas, where Mother Goddess is worshipped, the two principal ones being Kalighat and Kamakhya.
Hinduism has many different festivals throughout the year. The Hindu calendar will usually prescribe their dates. The festivals typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, often coinciding with the seasonal changes. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated by different sects or in certain regions of the Indian subcontinent. Some of the widely observed Hindu festivals are Maha Shivaratri, Holi, Ram Navami, Krishna Janmastami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussera, Durga Puja and Diwali.
Hinduism is based upon "the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times". The scriptures were transmitted orally in verse form to help aid memorization, for many centuries before they were finally written down. Over many centuries, sages refined the teachings and also expanded the canon. In post-Vedic and current Hindu belief, most Hindu scriptures are typically not interpreted literally. More importance is attached to ethics and metaphorical meanings that are derived from them. Most Hindu sacred texts are in Sanskrit. The texts are classified into Shruti and Smriti.
Shruti primarily refers to the Vedas, which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. While many Hindus consider the Vedas as eternal truths revealed to ancient sages, some devotees do not associate the creation of the Vedas with either a god or person. They are thought to be laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if not revealed to the sages. Hindus believe that because these spiritual truths of the Vedas are eternal, they continue to be expressed in many new ways.
There are four different Vedas (called Ṛg-, Sāma- Yajus- and Atharva-). The Rigveda is the first and also most important Veda. Each Veda is divided into four seperate parts: the primary one, the Veda proper, being the Saṃhitā, which contains sacred mantras. The other three parts form a three-tier ensemble of commentaries, usually in prose and are considered to be slightly later in age than the Saṃhitā. These are the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and the Upanishads. The first two parts were previously called the Karmakāṇḍa (ritualistic portion), while the last two form the Jñānakāṇḍa (knowledge portion). While the Vedaswill focus on rituals, the Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophical teachings, and also discuss Brahman and reincarnation.
Hindu texts beside the Shrutis are collectively called the Smritis (memory). The most notable smritis are the epics, consisting of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. The Bhagavad Gītā is an integral part of the Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of allHinduism. It contains philosophical teachings from Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, that was told to the prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gītā, spoken by Krishna, is defined as the essence of the Vedas. However Gita, occasionally called Gitopanishad, is more often placed in the Shruti, category, because it is Upanishadic in content. The Smritis also include the Purāṇas, that illustrate Hindu ideas through vivid narratives. There are texts containing a sectarian nature such as Devī Mahātmya, the Tantras, the Yoga Sutras, Tirumantiram, Shiva Sutras and the HinduĀgamas.